To know, to utter, to argue ... and to archive and access
What place does archived online content have in social media's political discourse? Part 2 of 2
27 May 2014
In my previous blog post I reflected upon web archiving as an ‘antidote to present shock’. In part, that post was inspired by an awareness that PANDORA web archive content was increasingly being cited (linked to) on social media, often for overt political purpose. In part, that post was also inspired by reports of UK Conservative Party’s attempt, albeit later retracted, to limit access to historical content from their website collected by and available at the Internet Archive. This was cause to pause and reflect upon our own web archiving efforts and how this operates within the everyday political discourse, particularly online and social media discourse. This, the second part to that original post, continues those musings and identifies current examples of archived sites finding their way into this political discourse.
Collecting and preserving online content for future long term access is for the most part a benign undertaking; perhaps, prima facie, as benign as collecting print publications, such as political memoirs and manifestos, and housing them securely among the august Library collections. However, three factors (at least) make this an assumption of which it is prudent to be wary, specifically: the selective process; the facility of online access; and the relentless ‘now’ of the online world and all that ensues from that (and which I discussed in the previous blog post).
Selectivity (with respect to what is included in the archive) is an issue because of the potential interpretations of the delivered outcomes of that selectivity. For example, assumptions or interpretation may be made as to why website 'x' is included and why websites 'y' and 'z' are not. Factors that complicate, constrain and determine selective collecting include limited resources, the need for timeliness in collecting, keeping up with new and changing content, requiring permissions to collect and preserve content, managing the risk of collecting contentious or dubious content and the technical limitations of the collecting mechanisms (the harvesting software and the rendering software). In summary, inclusion of certain content and the absence of other content does not represent an intention of bias.
The facility with which access to content is enabled online is certainly one factor that constantly threatens the benign character of the web archive collection. People can use the content and promote and disseminate it quickly and broadly in a manner that cannot be accomplished with print collections. So it becomes part of the discourse more easily and, certainly at times, more mischievously.
Consequently, provided there is open public access to the content – and that means efficient discovery mechanisms – the archival content is readily able to be reengaged with, in the ‘now time’ the of the online world and its discourse. The polemical potential and potency is at once overt, engaging and at literally at hand.
Election campaigns are certainly highly charged activities and they give rise to many creative (and not so creative) artefacts alongside the more serious documentation of party platforms and promises. By any measure this is material of great political, social and cultural interest. Collecting election campaign material, it being especially ephemeral, has been a fundamental activity of the PANDORA Archive since its inception (as indeed it is of other web archives in other jurisdictions such as the US Library of Congress web archives election collections).
As a matter of course and with some assiduousness we collect the electoral sites of aspiring candidates. Some of these will disappear never to be heard of on the political scene again, some will pursue a political life perhaps with a variation of direction along the way while some will go on to high office including the prime ministership. It is therefore natural that we have collected the website of the Member for Lalor (Julia Gillard) between 2001 and 2007 – that is commencing a decade before she became Prime Minister. It is natural that we should collect the website of the Member for Griffith (Kevin Rudd) in 2004 and 2006 prior to his terms as Prime Minister. So too it is natural to collect and archive the website of the Member for Warringah (Tony Abbott) from 2001 onwards – a dozen years before he became Prime Minister. Similarly, it is hardly a matter of contention that we should collect, for example, the websites of Malcolm Turnbull as the candidate for the seat of Wentorth and as the Member for Wentworth being a prominent Australian who first appears in the PANDORA archive in association with the 1998 Constitutional Convention and more prominently as the Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.
In the first months of 2014, two of the most quoted sources from PANDORA on social media are the Member for Warringah’s website and the Member for Wentworth’s 2009 speech titled 'Time for some straight talking on climate change’ published on his website. The Member for Warringah’s website having been archived between November 2001 and September 2013 obviously provides substantial content to analyse, much as the Prime Minister's book Battlelines will be analysed in respect to the achievments of his tenure in office. In the first quarter of 2014 these two sites entered the top 10 most viewed sites in PANDORA – evidence of the power of word-of-mouth in the guise of the ‘tweet’ – though never really threatening the PANDORA 'pageview' hegemony of the genealogy site First Families 2001 and other stalwarts of popularity such as the Centenary of Federation website, Digger History and the Commonwealth Government’s defunct cultural portal culture.gov.au.
What is evident is that the pursuit of public life and the tenure of public office cultivates a fascinating and fertile field to plough, not only for research but also for the polemic discourse of social media. These men and women (and the organisations which support them) increasingly provide evidence of their journeys to and through public office through the material they publish on the web along the way. Access to this historic material surely helps the Australian citizenry to understand, comment upon and indeed critique their aspiring and achieving leaders. At the risk of over working Milton’s lines from his famous tract the Areopagitica, web archiving may be one of the facilities to enfranchise and ‘give [us] the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience’.
The main image used at the heading of this post is from the PANDORA copy (archived July 2013) of the No Fibs website, a 'citizens journalism project' edited by Margo Kingston.
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